beaver,  news

Fear of disease

The wild beavers living on the River Otter (an ironic name) in Devon, England may get to stay put, but then again, they may not. I’ve been following the developments about these beavers since their presence was confirmed in January 2014. Basically, these beavers were released by someone without a proper permit, possibly even before 2009, and have now established themselves to the extent that they have had kits in the wild.

When DEFRA and Natural England, the environmental authority in England, got confirmation of the beavers’ existence, they decided to remove them. Back in May, there were reports that DEFRA would kill (politely termed ‘cull’) the Devon beavers, which raised many objections from environmentalist groups. Private ‘write-in’ protest campaigns were started to express citizen displeasure at a cull attempt, especially since it would follow in the footsteps of a ridiculously unsuccessful and unpopular badger cull. Friends of the Earth sent a pre-action letter to Natural England in October challenging the potential cull because of the European beaver’s protected status under EU law. Now it appears that DEFRA may not cull the animals if it turns out that they are free from Echinococcus Multilocularis (EM), an internal tapeworm parasite which is transmittable to humans. (I’ll add that correspondence available as part of an FOI release indicates that DEFRA had not planned to kill the animals unless they had EM.)

Echinococcus parasite from a dog. Manual of Pathological Anatomy (1875), page 218.
Echinococcus parasite from a dog. Manual of Pathological Anatomy (1875), page 218.

The developments are interesting to me because of the way that beavers are talked about as belonging or not in the discussions. In this case, the belongingness of the beavers apparently hinges on disease. If they are free of EM, they belong; if they aren’t, they don’t. The problem with this criterion is that it requires testing and the only definitive test for EM is post-mortem. There are possibilities for an ante-mortem test for beavers, but it is unproven (possible non-lethal testing is also discussed in one of the FOI documents by the Royal Zoological Society). So if DEFRA actually wants to confirm that a beaver does or doesn’t have EM, they would have to kill it.

This comes down to a question of risk–and to whom. It involves a remote but possible risk that the beavers could be carrying EM (one captive beaver in Great Britain was diagnosed with EM in 2006), which might spread. Although foxes are the primary host for EM, nobody is talking about the danger to foxes–it’s all about potential risk to humans. The interesting thing is that according to the FOI documents, the agency Public Health England thinks that the Devon beavers do not greatly increase the risk of spreading EM, which is much more likely to come from imported pets. But the risk is there, so it has been latched upon by DEFRA in their discourse as a reason to get rid of these beavers.

If you read the press now, you get the impression that the concern about beavers is about disease, but is it really? In a press report from May, a Defra spokesperson is quoted as saying:

Beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the last 500 years. Our landscape and habitats have changed since then and we need to assess the impact they could have.

This argument is a tried and true one for the anti-reintroduction sentiment in Britain, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with the disease question. It may be that the DEFRA response to the Devon beavers has more to do with the lack of permitting, i.e. the loss of authority, than anything else. As I discussed back in September, a graphic showing beavers as ‘non-native’ makes a ‘lack of permitting’ argument for this status. In the DEFRA statement above, the government wants to be the one ‘to assess the impact’ and give permission.

While I understand disease-avoidance, it would also seem prudent to consider whether or not there is real risk. Like targeting the raccoon dog in Sweden (also for EM) and the hysteria in the US over Ebola, imagined risks are often radically different than real ones. Wouldn’t it be a shame to erase beaver from Britain after it is finally brought back for nothing?

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